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I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My second novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011. My latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, came out in August 2015, now available on VOD, DVD, and streaming media. This blog is a paranormal memoir-in-progress, whenever I have spare time. It's a chronicle of my encounters with ghosts, family phantoms, and other forms of spirit.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

At Home with a Ghost - 37


(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

I used to visit a fortuneteller named Mahjouba in the Marrakesh kasbah, not because I put much stock in her predictions, but because her method fascinated me. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

It was hard to find her house, which had no street number. I had to pass through one of those narrow alleyways that sometimes turns into a low-ceilinged tunnel, forcing you into a crouch. The first time I quickly got lost. Luckily I knew the Arabic word for fortuneteller; all I had to say was ‘shuwafa’ and the street urchins pointed me to her door.

I would bring French pastries along with her fee, even though she was hugely overweight. Her grateful smile contained about three teeth. She spoke no French, so her daughter interpreted the readings for me.

First, Mahjouba placed lumps of lead in a ladle, then held it over the flame of a Bunsen burner. The lead melted and bubbled. Her daughter placed a big bowl of cold water on the floor and directed me to stand over it with my legs apart. Mahjouba poured the liquid metal into the bowl; when it hit the water with a burst of sizzle, the lead instantly solidified, creating unusual shapes. Plucking each shape from the bowl, she ran her fingers over their gnarls and bumps and finger-like projections, then proceeded to “read” them, babbling away in Arabic.

This was always the disappointing part. All the fortunetellers recited more or less the same thing, from the shuwafa manual I guess. The daughter translated, “Watch out for a dark man.” (Morocco was crawling with dark men to watch out for.) “Much money will come to you. In five years you will marry a good man who loves you, and have many sons.”

This was never going to be my fate. I was not going to marry. I’d settled that in my mind a long time ago. However, “much money” sounded good: my publishing advance was going to run out after the New Year.

Once I’d moved from rowdy Marrakesh to the quiet villa in Tangier, my writing picked up speed. I felt confident that I could finish the novel by January, submit the manuscript and collect the second half of the advance.

With my eye on that deadline, I didn’t welcome interruptions as I typed away. However, in late July my mother arrived from Paris for a few days’ visit.

I have mentioned that Mom flew about the world with tireless gusto, her disability be damned, planting her crutches on five out of seven continents. Perhaps because I was the first child she birthed after polio had wrecked her legs, she taught me from the earliest time that independence was everything. Life was a bid for freedom. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.

So that became my banner, too.

In time, I turned around and gave her the same speech. When most of her five children had left home, and women’s liberation was ascendant, I encouraged her to get involved with the United Nations, an institution she loved and believed in. She volunteered at UNESCO, gradually making herself indispensable until at last they gave her a contract and sent her off on her travels. She toured schools from Senegal to Guatemala to introduce her curriculum for teaching children global awareness.

My father did not react well. He hadn’t “signed up for that kind of marriage,” he said. The more she dove into her job, the more he brooded, withdrew, and turned stubbornly deaf whenever she tried to talk about her experiences. Their relationship was as fraught as I’d ever seen it; they were both miserable. She rolled on anyway, unstoppable. Mother had an almost pathological tenacity. People were always calling her a “force of nature,” and I thought that was accurate if you had in mind a Category 5 hurricane. Never let anyone tell you you can’t do something.

From the moment she arrived at my villa, it was apparent something was wrong. She was, to put it gently, out of her tree. I learned that on a recent trip to China she’d had a violent allergic reaction to some locally produced antibiotic: hallucinating, raving.

By her account, she also experienced a life-altering epiphany. She saw clearly that she had never been herself. She had played nice for too long, acted the complaisant slave to her husband, lied to everyone about her deepest feelings, had even used her polio to gain sympathy – in short, she announced she was a phony and a fraud.

What she observed in China was a purity of endeavor. It inspired her to find a way to be purely and uncompromisingly true to herself. My dad might not like the new her, but, she declared, she would sacrifice her marriage if need be.

As the first step, she’d decided to redesign their house in suburban Connecticut in the manner of a Chinese pavilion. Sitting on my terrace she muttered manically to herself as she sketched the architectural plans on stray bits of paper, trying to reconfigure our 50’s modern home into a traditional Chinese dwelling without having to raze the place. I could only imagine how the Republican neighbors would feel about tiled pagoda roofs, or how my father would feel about having to pay for it.

Also, she wasn’t interested in sleeping or eating. I worried that she was still tripping on the bad Chinese drugs. Maybe she’d been brainwashed; maybe what I had here was the Manchurian Mom.

The phone rang. This in itself was a shock, because the phone in the villa never rang. Only three people had my number: my parents and my agent.

I lifted the receiver and heard my agent’s voice, faint and crackling through the oceanic transmission. He was calling from New York with catastrophic news. My editor, who had signed me to a major publishing house, had left her post. Her replacement examined all the pending projects, glanced over my opening chapters, and summarily cancelled my contract. Null and void: I owed no book, and was owed no more money. I could keep the advance I’d already received and stop writing.

For me, the news was the coup de grace – although I believe that French expression means finishing off your downed opponent as an act of mercy, whereas this latest turn of events seemed merciless in the extreme. I’d fled the States because my failures were there – the ruptured romance, the stillborn recording career, the cancelled musical, the doors of Hollywood firmly closed on my filmmaking ventures… I was grateful to have one avenue still left, a promising future as a published novelist. And now the message was: stop writing.

After hanging up, I burst into tears. Suddenly I was tired to my core. The cycle of trying and losing, trying and losing, over and over, would never end. My helpless sobbing got my mother’s attention away from her own work of obliterating her house. I sat next to her and wept as she stroked my head.

At length I quieted down enough to tell her what had happened, concluding with, “I just don’t have it in me anymore. I’m going to pack it in.” I added drily, “I obviously can’t support myself, so let someone else do it. I guess I’ll have to get married.”

My mother was always the last to pick up on a joke. “Mom!” I said. “I’m kidding!” But she was already considering my statement seriously. In the pause, I realized that I really was serious. More than anything, I was tired of being alone while failing at everything.

She said, “I think you need support by any name.” She looked down at the crumpled sketches in her lap, and her own mood changed. Her elation was subsiding, epiphany fading; she was coming down from her trip. I could tell, the way she sagged, that she would never build a Chinese pavilion or leave her marriage.

She lifted her eyes to mine again. I knew that look well. It said: please. Stoop down, pick up the banner. Do it for both of us.

I knew I would get up the next morning and write. No matter if no one wanted it: I’d finish the book I started. And then I’d write some more.

(To be continued.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 36


(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

A force was urging me to rise from the bed and go out on the balcony. I gripped the sides of the bed so as not to be swept off. My will was draining away, as if my own blood yearned to join the tidal current, to be borne away…off the balcony. The irresistible lure was not to commit suicide, but rather to fly.  

No, I had not dropped acid, or smoked the abundant kif passed around to the wedding guests, nor eaten the mahjoon (dried fruit, spices, honey, and hash buds), nor drunk whiskey or wine. My reason reasoned, quite reasonably, against leaping to my death. My body and being were desperate to obey.

My dear friend Karla still remembers being woken by the telephone ringing at five a.m. on her wedding day. “Please,” I begged, “stay on the phone with me. Something’s pushing me to the balcony, and if I go out there I’m afraid I’ll jump off.”

Karla drowsily suggested that I close the doors to the balcony.  

I approached the moonlit doorway, my legs rippling like water so that I could hardly stand, fighting lunacy itself. It seemed to take my hands forever to grasp the door handles, and then, in a burst of determination, I swung the doors shut and locked them.

I returned to the phone. Karla was snoring on the other end. I hung up and slid back under the bedcovers.

As I lay there, the room filled up with unseen miasmic threat, an evil pressure I remembered too well from another hotel room, in Marrakesh. I muttered my little Muslim prayer, but it carried no weight against this tyrannical presence. Something crowded close, as if searching for points of entry; I could feel its intent to nudge my soul aside and take charge. I recoiled from it, hiding under my threadbare sanity while I waited, shivering, for the light of day.

I flew back to Tangier six days later, after surviving the mother of all Moroccan weddings. A package from New York was waiting for me. It was from anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano. I didn’t know him at all, but I’d read his book about a Moroccan spirit cult. Crapanzano’s accounts of their ecstatic dancing and possession by the jinnoon struck a chord of familiarity with me. Impulsively I wrote him a letter describing my own experience of “marrying” a spirit; how the jinn faded away, only to be replaced by supernatural horndogs, jinnoon who woke me before dawn, digging their fingers into my ribs and assaulting me from behind.

I didn’t expect to hear back from him. His answer did arrive, in the form of a manuscript. He wrote that he was startled by the synchronicity of my letter, since he had just finished writing a book about an illiterate Moroccan tile worker who claimed to be married to a jinniya (female spirit). Crapanzano had interviewed the man over the course of a year, and had grown very fond of his subject. The anthropologist in him had to maintain a scientific objectivity, and render a scrupulously academic analysis of local mythology. Yet, another part of him wanted to believe the man’s story and descriptions of the world of the jinnoon. My story had matched the tileworker’s in tantalizing ways that suggested our experiences were actual.

I read Vincent’s manuscript eagerly. For a while the tileworker’s story seemed very remote from me, though poignant: he was probably mentally ill (he’d been hospitalized for depression) and thus more likely to find a superstitious explanation for his instability.

Then I came across Crapanzano’s mention that, according to Moroccan belief, a sleeper is considered to be particularly vulnerable to demonic influence just before waking.

Very strange, I thought: that’s just the time when my tormentors made their move. How many times had they waked me – as recorded in my journal – at 5, 5:30, 6 a.m.?

I resumed reading until I came upon another detail that freaked me out a bit. The tileworker declared that a jinniya intent on seducing a mortal first approaches him in the guise of someone beloved. The victim thinks he’s sleeping with his crush. After that, whenever the jinniya reappears, she drops all pretense and the mortal realizes, too late, what he’s in for. He may never be rid of her now.

I must mention here that when I first saw my husband-jinn, in that indelible dream about our wedding, he resembled a man I’d been deeply, horribly in love with, four years before. The resemblance was close enough that I didn’t hesitate to rush down the aisle and say, “I do.” I was still hot for him after all those years. That is, until he lifted my veil and dug his fingers hard into my ribs, and the pain woke me from the dream, and from then on I was toast.

Whenever I doubted myself, thinking I’d made up the whole thing, I would remember that dream and how the jinn looked an awful lot like my heartbreaker ex-boyfriend. Then I’d tell myself that the dream was simply wish-fulfillment, and what happened after – when I woke to find an immense studly body on top of me – was a hypnopomic image (psychologists’ term for a hallucination generated by a sort of cross-current of sleep and consciousness).

Reading further in the manuscript, I saw something that took my breath away. The tileworker said that whenever the jinniya visits her victims, “she will come to them at night and tickle them – pinch their bones.” Crapanzano added, “Pinching bones are a symptom of demonic attack.”

Here is my journal entry from earlier that summer, when I was visited once again by jinnoon: “Dreaming I had an experience of sheer physical torture – in the usual 5 - 6 a.m. hour-of-the-wolf – it was a murderous tickling, and not tickling but a gouging in the ticklish zone, under the arms, and I had to thrash my head from side to side on the pillow, trying to create enough discomfort to wake myself and escape those fingers under my arms.”

Crapanzano was amazed by this coincidence, too. His tileworker had grown up
steeped in the myths and legends of his native country. The man unconsciously reworked these into a personal myth: his marriage to the jinniya. But how could a tourist from New York, with no prior knowledge of the specifics of Moroccan superstition, report the same details? Unless the spirit world was real, and our stories true.

(To be continued.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 35


(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)


A high singing note penetrated my ear, bored through my sleep and pulled me into the vague light: the hour before dawn. Here they were again, after my blood. Even when I pulled the sheet completely over my head, they wouldn’t give up, whining around the shroud until I was forced to come out for lack of air.

They were even worse than the jinnoon, those lascivious sex-crazed spirits who had waged a tireless campaign to annoy my sleep ever since I was fool enough to invoke them. But the jinnoon only arrived sporadically, whereas the mosquitoes tormented me every night of summer except when the wind was high.

There was nothing to be done. The villa’s doors and windows had no screens, and to close them meant to suffocate in the heat. At least it was cooler here than down in the kasbah. During the summer months the wealthier Moroccans and white expatriates moved to higher ground, into the villas and compounds that dotted the tall hill they called “The Mountain.” From November to May, the raw winds from the North Atlantic blew in, battering the mountain, and the Mountain folk went downhill, so to speak, to their houses in town or back to Europe. I stayed.

I loved Tangier. I’d rented a gorgeous little walled villa from a friend I’d met at Sarah Lawrence. A luxurious life style in Morocco was still cheap by American standards, and my publisher’s generous advance easily covered the seven months’ rent until December, when I would have to leave.

Naíma continued to cook, shop, and clean for me. She was lonely on The Mountain and missed Marrakesh, finding it hard to adjust to the quiet and solitude I preferred, as well as my ascetic writing routine. In the mornings I would shut myself in the study to work on my novel; afternoons I took the bus into the kasbah to visit friends; nights I’d take a cup of soup into the study and write late into the night. I think she grew to hate the sound of typing.

Once in a while, her mother the witch visited from Khouribga. Naíma would turn over her salary to Fatima, and then I’d throw in some more money for her magic services, even though I didn’t need them. I felt safe here. My book was going well, and the jinnoon were obnoxious but manageable. Sorcery couldn’t help with the mosquitoes, since they probably hailed from hell in the first place. So I smiled indulgently as Fatima puttered about burning herbs in all the rooms; and I sat stifling yawns as she read my cards. She delivered the usual upbeat news: a rich handsome man was coming, I’d have lots of money, uh huh. The witch even cagily added that my book would be a great success.

I knew better than to be complacent about the spirits, however. I was by no means out of danger. Even though the pattern of their visits had become familiar, I still woke with the same terror and dread when they came; when, in the dawning light, I heard the faint hissing, like sliding sands, as the energy gathered into human form behind me, tightening its arms around me and laughing in my ear. A prayer might send them away, but I worried they could be the advance guard for something bigger.

That evil made its second appearance in Fez.


                                     Hamadsha trance musicians



The occasion was a double wedding. Four friends of mine were tying the knot: Karla (from Idaho) and Mie (from Denmark) were marrying Mohammed and Majid, shopowners in Tangier. Moh and Majid were the eldest of fourteen children from a large mercantile family based in Fez.

Hundreds of guests had convened in Fez’s vieille ville for the weeklong celebration. Oddly, the festivities kicked off with a circumcision party. It was a matter of killing two birds with one stone: as long as guests, family and musicians were gathered for a wedding, why not snip off a foreskin for good measure? One of the youngest sons had just turned 7, the age when Moroccan boys turn away from the world of women and are deemed to be men, symbolized by the emergence of the unwrapped penis.

The operation was done in private; afterward the boy, tears running down his cheeks, holding his djellaba so it wouldn’t brush against the wounded member underneath, arrived to the ululations of the crowd. The players whipped out pipe, oboe, and drums, and then launched into a pounding, squalling, tangled mess of music. Everyone, including the Westerners who had smoked kif, got up to dance.

The dissonant sound was maddening. It invited you to lose it, or flee. Losing it, though, was the point.

Before joining in, Majid told me, “When I dance to this music, I lose control, I forget everything, I leave myself. I wake up after, and I feel like I’m new, I’m a baby just born.”

But I wouldn’t budge. I’d read about these musicians in a book I’d found at the villa: they were trance musicians, a pagan Berber version of the Sufis. In their rituals you danced to the point of ecstasy, then surrendered your mind and body to the jinnoon. You moved aside and the spirits took you over – similar to the loa riding Haitian voodoo dancers.

So I prudently held back, and watched everyone else go crazy. The last thing I needed was for the scuzzy spirits who tailgated me all over Morocco to take the wheel of my being. Demonic possession was not my idea of a party.

Later, back at my hotel room, I opened the doors and went out on the balcony to appreciate the full moon, the labyrinthine city below, and the distant yowling of cats, dogs, and musicians. I went to bed congratulating myself for staying out of trouble.

Just before dawn, when the moon lay low, a nearby mosque’s PA switched on. The call to prayer droned over the city: La ilaha illa Allah, As-salatu – ” etc. The prayer got mixed up in whatever I was dreaming; it sounded like “Anyone seen Ally Harris?”…

And then I was awake. And instantly wished I was not.

(To be continued.)